Fresh off a bruising immigration bill fight that cost him support among some on the Republican right, Sen. Marco Rubio is refocusing on bread-and-butter issues that play better with the GOP base: defunding President Obama's health law, promoting pro-life policies and attacking the United Nations.
The Florida Republican added the U.N. notch to his belt Wednesday when he introduced a bill that would cap America's contribution to the international organization's annual budget and restrict funding for U.N. agencies that single out Israel for criticism or recognize the Palestinian Authority.
Mr. Rubio also on Wednesday helped lead the floor fight against Mr. Obama's nominee to head the Labor Department, arguing that Thomas E. Perez is thumbing his nose at subpoenas from the House and must be blocked.
Mr. Rubio, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, is trying to tap into conservative anger at a time when much of that anger has been aimed at him for his role as one of the "Gang of Eight" — the group of senators who wrote the Senate's immigration overhaul proposal.
Their bill, which has yet to be taken up in the GOP-controlled House, provides quick legal status to illegal immigrants but withholds a path to citizenship until the federal government takes more steps on border security.
"He and his staff are finding out exactly what it means to play in the big leagues," said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist. "They have taken some hits on immigration, so they are working furiously to shore up their right flank by focusing on some of these hot-button issues that are popular with the base."
The immigration fight cost Mr. Rubio with the tea party groups that once claimed him as their own, and polling shows his standing with Republicans overall has dropped.
But some conservatives defend Mr. Rubio, saying he can overcome the divisions on immigration.
Ralph E. Reed, Jr., founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition and a proponent of immigration reform, called Mr. Rubio a "full-spectrum conservative" and said he "remains greatly admired by grass-roots Republican activists."
"I don't think it's necessary for him to strain any pander muscles to maintain his friendship with conservatives," Mr Reed said. "He just needs to be himself and take the strong stands on issues he has throughout his career and he'll be fine."
He added, "Immigration is a difficult issue on which many conservatives of good will disagree. Reagan favored amnesty and signed a bill in 1986 that was much more liberal than the Gang of Eight legislation, but conservatives did not disown him as a result. I don't think they will disown Marco Rubio, either."
Since the immigration bill passed the Senate on a 68-32 vote late last month, Mr. Rubio has lowered his profile on the issue, even as he's taken the lead on the red-meat conservative issues.
In a speech last week, Mr. Rubio urged lawmakers to defund "Obamacare" and vowed to oppose any increase in the nation's borrowing limit unless lawmakers and Mr. Obama adopt a plan to balance the federal budget in 10 years.
He also has been working with pro-life groups on a bill banning most abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy — a bill advocates believe will be introduced before lawmakers leave Washington for their five-week August recess.
He didn't join other Gang of Eight senators at a strategy meeting Tuesday where they worked with pro-reform groups to figure out how to pressure the House GOP to act.
Mr. Rubio's spokesman, Alex Conant, said the senator wants to give his Republican colleagues in that chamber space to work.
"We have a badly broken immigration system that is in dire need of reform, and Sen. Rubio worked hard to produce and pass the best proposal possible in a Democrat-controlled Senate," Mr. Conant said. "The Senate's work has created an important opportunity for the House to advance reform further, but they should be given deference to decide their own way forward."
© Copyright 2016 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.